Friday, January 30, 2015

Goddess of Death (1982), by Michael Underwood

Since his death nearly a quarter-century ago, the English crime writer Michael Underwood (1916-1992) has fallen off the map, I suspect, for most people; and to me this signifies something I find wrong with the modern world of crime fiction. Like Michael Gilbert (1912-2006) and Andrew Garve (1908-2001), Michael Underwood did much to keep the relatively traditional British mystery alive and kicking in the decades after the Second World War; yet today how often do any of these authors appear in books recommending older mystery writers (Books to Die For, etc.)?

Underwood was a lawyer, like Gilbert, and he also wrote spy thrillers, like both Gilbert and Garve, but he was as well a most reliable practitioner, like Gilbert and Garve, of the classic English mystery, updated to suit the mood of the period when he was active as a writer, 1954 to 1992 (Elizabeth Ferrars, 1907-1995, is another name that comes to mind in this regard).

Goddess of Death is by no means the best Underwood novel, but it is a "good read" for the classic mystery fan and illustrates the author's commendable qualities.  It's short, by both modern standards and Golden Age standards--about 65,000 words. Probably many younger mystery readers today would be surprised to learn that short crime novels were the norm for forty or fifty years in the twentieth century, spurred by paper shortages during World War Two and then lasting well into the 1980s. In the Sixties and Seventies even PD James and Ruth Rendell wrote relatively short crime novels!

One can see how Goddess of Death could have been expanded in the later James/Rendell manner, with more detail about the personal life of the series character, defense attorney Rosa Epton, more descriptive passages and more background on the individuals Epton encounters in the course of the story.  Instead Underwood opts for narrative economy, which allows readers to concentrate on the problem he presents.

In this novel, the third recorded case of Rosa Epton (the series of fifteen novels Underwood wrote about Epton ran from 1980 until his death in 1992), the lawyer takes on, at the request of an acquaintance, Philip Arne, the defense of Arne's young layabout brother, Francis, who has been charged with loitering with intent (not concerning prostitution but car theft).  Epton gets the younger Arne acquitted, but then learns that Phlip has been murdered, bludgeoned to death in his flat with a statuette of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi, and that Francis is a prime suspect in the heinous crime.  Did Francis do it?

I enjoyed Goddess of Death.  Rosa Epton is not a troubled, indeed anguished, series sleuth in the modern fashion.  If not a Great Detective either, she does have the reassuring presence of the Great Detective and she does embody, classically, both virtue and justice (though in her early thirties, I take it, she admonishes Francis Arne when he uses the f-word in her office).

The additional characters in the novel are lightly sketched, but some were rather well done, in my view, particularly a judge with a wandering eye that frequently settles in the courtroom on Epton and a police sergeant, Paul Adderley, who is something of a smarty-pants but also a bright cop and a good one.

Without making a great fuss over it, Underwood reveals that Francis Arne is gay and his relationship with another gay character, a quite matey housemate, is credibly done (on the whole I think the gay characters are better done than the Indian ones).

The murder problem does not have the complexity of Golden Age detective fiction, but it is an engaging puzzle that it is fairly clued.  Rosa Epton in the end has the solution handed to her, but the reader has the chance to solve the problem for herself.

I will write some more about Underwood this year, as he had a long and varied career in twentieth-century crime fiction that I think is deserving of greater attention than it receives today.  Happily, Orion's The Murder Room imprint has made his books available on Kindle, though only, I believe, in the UK.


  1. One of his short stories is in steady circulation though; i have more than one anthology that features 'Murder at St Oswalds'. And why not? it's a fine example of a classic crime story written during the Silver Age

  2. He's one of those crime authors whose name I recognise, but have never read anything by them. Sounds like he was a reliable, dependable, un-flashy writer who delivered the goods on a regular basis, and I'll be interested in finally reading some of his stuff. He must have done around 50 books, so if I like him I'l really have something to keep me going. Other than this one, do you have any suggestions?

  3. I have read a few of Underwood's Rosa Epton novels but so long ago I don't remember which ones. I would be interested in which ones are spy novels. I looked around a bit on the web and found nothing definitive. On Fantastic Fiction it looks like the Martin Ainsworth series are spy novels?

  4. The Ainsworth books definitely look like spy novels. At only four books, it doesn't look like he particularly enjoyed spy novels. The Rosa Epton series seems to have been his main series from the 80s onwards. I had assumed that perhaps he was following the trend towards female investigators that really took off in that decade, but not only did he created her back in the early 70s, but when the series took off in earnest in 1980, he actually anticipated Anna Lee, Kinsey Mulhone and V I Warshawski (although Epton is a solictor rather than a private eye).

  5. Hi all, I think his spy novels were confined to the 1960s and 1970s. I believe there actually are five Martin Ainsworth novels, including A Pinch of Snuff; and I don't believe that either Snuff or A Trout in the Milk, from that series, are spy novels. I would recommend the earlier Simon Manton novels as a good start, or, if you are doing Epton, A Party to Murder or Death in Camera or maybe Death at Deepwood Grange (it has a floor plan!). Some of his standalones are good too, like Hand of Fate. But I have yet to read all his books myself! Jacques Barzun was very high on Trout.

  6. The best bibliography of Underwood crime fiction on the net, I think, is at the Stop You're Killing Me website: